Joyless Critical Commentary on Christmas Stories

In my part of the world, the rituals around Christmas form some of the most tangible manifestations of prominent cultural mythologies, both religious and secular. The stories that are told and the songs that are sung throughout December stuff a whole lot of work into the days when they are allowed to be used.

And I can’t help having become a person who keeps a critical eye open to everything, which is often draining, but made even more so during this period of hyperconcentrated culture-work. From the mundane interactions that reveal the ways in which not everyone’s personal story fits into the valorized model (see also Captain Awkward), to the now-ritualized conversations about whether or not is offensive (?!) to wish someone “Happy Holidays”. There are the songs that I struggle to hear and/or sing now – once I groked the rapey-ness of “Baby It’s Cold Outside”, the discomfort immediately overcame all previous enjoyment of a relatively fun tune (musically speaking), and I realized as I was singing “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” to my toddler that I could only be comfortable if I reversed the gendered names attached to the toys. The tumblr “Folks Dressed Up Like Eskimos” does a nice job with a humourous takedown of that particularly racist line that we all repeat because somehow, the Christmas spirit requires us to ignore the whatever partial respect for the Other that we may (or may not) have learned. My friend also pointed out to me this week that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is essentially a hymn to neo-liberal capitalism (though since it was written long before the rise of neo-liberalism it may be more accurate to connect it to the Weberian Protestant work ethic), because Rudolph is redeemed by the other reindeer only when he proves himself useful to their cause, not because of the intrinsic universal value of each and every person (or reindeer).

Most of those aren’t really new to me, and they’ve just become noise. But every year, something new does hit me. This year, it was the Will Ferrell movie Elf, which I had seen a couple of times before and enjoyed, but which I watched this year with the realization that Buddy is actually a boundary-violating douchenozzle, but we’re supposed to find it endearing and charming. The people whose boundaries he has been violating (including his female co-worker-cum-girlfriend, but primarily his father) are only upset by it because they have become lost in the world of capitalist greed and are unable to access the true joy that is manifested in Buddy. And it makes me sad, because I liked that movie and it has some really funny lines/scenes.

Maybe all that is why, like Fred Clark at slacktivist, I’m much more drawn towards the mythological expressions that bring out the haunting sense of loss and grief that is connected to all this heightened emotion. To his list, I would add the lovely “Song for a Winter’s Night”, originally by Gordon Lightfoot and then improved (imo) by Sarah McLauchlan.

Merry Christmas.



Violent Silence

The #idlenomore movement has brought First Nations voices out within the hearing of the general Canadian settler population. This is unquestionably a Good Thing.

One of the most powerful parts of this growing protest has been the hunger strike by Chief Theresa Spence of the Attawapiskat First Nation. George Strombolopolous has one of the simplest, and clearest CBC pieces on what she is asking for, and what this means for her and for those who have decided to join in solidarity with her. Despite Governor General David Johnson’s claim (in an interview linked here) that what she is asking for is unclear, it is not. She wants to speak directly to the representatives of the people with whom her people – the people she represents as Chief – have a treaty. What is being asked, here, is a meeting of equals, not yet another disrespectful dismissal in the form of an audience with anyone other than the people who run this show. 

Labour Unions have come out to support Spence and Idle No More, with the Canadian Union of Postal Workers commenting:

We recognize the racist and genocidal history of Canada and that the attempts to assimilate and silence Indigenous voices have been rife with failure and abuse.

This is one of the ugliest types of violence – forcing people into silence, and responding to their requests to be heard with refusal, even in the face of their willingness to die. While Spence and First Nations people across the country are finding ways to combat this force and make their voices heard, Harper is also continuing to find a way to engage in violent silence. Refusing to have this conversation – for reasons that he has not made remotely clear, in my opinion – constitutes murder.

That Rabble article linked above also includes a statement by Thomas Mulcair, leader of the official opposition, which urges Harper to meet with Spence to avoid a “personal tragedy” for her. That’s a huge step up from Harper’s own actions, but it is disappointingly far from what needs to be said. Harper is amplifying a violent silence that has been ongoing for quite some time, escalating these acts with a calm shake of his head. Mulcair is asking him not to escalate this action against Spence as an individual, but he is not asking for anything that might disrupt the ongoing violent silence that is destroying Canada’s First Nations.

I hope this conversation between Harper, Johnson, and Spence will happen, and I hope that it becomes a long one. I also hope that one conversation, which will hopefully avert a “personal tragedy” is not seen as the end of a much, much longer period of silence and silencing.

Getting ‘Political’

I have, obviously, struggled to get this blog started. There are a billion excuses, most of which revolve around either the universal problem of not enough time or the more particular sense that the internet fray is just too loud, and trying to be a voice within it will only give me laryngitis. But as the world keeps turning, and the fray keeps growing uglier and uglier, I can’t shake the feeling that I need to say something, somewhere, even if it’s just more of the same thing that is being said elsewhere, by more intelligent people, or at least people with more time to research and edit.

Take the conversation about the most recent gun massacre in the U.S. The fact that the murdered includes a large proportion of very young children in this case has meant that the grief is greater and the conversation about how to prevent it in the future has been more urgent. Very, very quickly, the stance emerged that it would be unseemly and inappropriate to ‘politicize’ this tragedy by talking about how it could have been prevented. There are already many, many good arguments out there about how it is impossible not to politicize such a conversation – mainly revolving around the idea that policy at many levels facilitated its occurrence in the first place, and the point that the anti-politicization stance is itself a political one, supporting the continuation of the status quo.

What I want to know, however, is how the word ‘political’ has changed in its meaning to refer almost exclusively to partisan electioneering. This is far from a new definition of the term, but the way in which it has come to supercede any other connotation in conversations about the social order is striking to me. ‘Politics’ in and of itself is not an ugly thing, and political disagreements are absolutely necessary, because they are the only means we have for establishing the formal structures through which we as social beings have a public existence. In this conversation, and those like it, accusations of being ‘political’ are treated as though there is some other way to be in society, to talk about relationships with other people, to organize our lives.

The points that have been made about how this conversation is inevitably political are good ones. What I want to add is that political is good, political is necessary, and political is not ugly. It is not the opposite of human, of relational, of social. It is that, and so much more. Grieving publicly is a political act, and deciding what we as a collectivity will do in order to respond to our grief, in order to feel it and process it and move through it and change it, is a political process, by definition. I wish that it weren’t necessary to explain to the ‘other side’ that they, too, are being ‘political’, but rather that it was easier to accept that being ‘political’ and ‘politicized’ in the face of a public tragedy is not only inevitable, but positive.

Blog Planning

I am still developing a sense of what I want to do with this new blog space that I have now taken the leap into creating. I wrote a couple of posts this week that, after some reflection, I went back and deleted because they don’t quite fit what I want to be doing. Fortunately, nobody knows I exist and therefore nobody cares if I do such things. 😉

But in order to allow someone, somewhere, to maybe care, and possibly more importantly, in order to make myself care about what it is I’m doing, I need a plan, and the deleted posts were very successful in giving me a sense of direction and focus. So the new broad goal that I have for this space is to use my particular area of expertise and look at the specific role of language in various types of new stories, events, and social contexts.

Language, of course, is something that a lot of people touch on in politics and media, but I hope that paying closer attention to it as a topic in and of itself will provide plenty of specific things to talk about.I used to say that language is one of those things that everyone thinks they know about because they speak one, which is akin to saying that you are an expert in biology because you have a body.  I’m far from the only language scholar out there in the blogosphere, but the fray is big, and I hope to make a useful contribution to it nonetheless.

So here begins the fun.

On writing every day

For the past few weeks, I have committed myself to writing something on my dissertation every day (meaning Monday-Friday, because my work days depend on when the munchkin is in daycare). This has been surprisingly productive, as the page count keeps growing on a couple of different chapters, and more importantly, the quality keeps improving as I go back and edit and reorganize.

It was a very short time ago that I asked my supervisor just how to actually, y’know, do that dissertation thing – how to get past the mental block that this isn’t just another paper, this isn’t something I’ve done before, this is that thing. It wasn’t the size that was scaring me, because I know that you just break that down into component chunks and write one section, one chapter at a time. It was just the name. But now, every day, it’s just….writing. She gave me a couple of suggestions about how to start, and from there, the paths just multiplied.

I don’t imagine that I’ll ever be able to commit myself in the same way to a blog, because I don’t have the goal of being a “successful” blogger, but I do see this as a real project that requires attention if it’s to perform its intended function. Now I wait for the paths to appear before I decide what to do with them.